31 Oct 2011

Halloween Horrors

Well FINALLY I'm done with the Chinese test. As to whether that also means a permanent end to Chinese lessons for me remains to be seen, although this time I'm a little bit more confident of passing :P

I saw it coincidentally fitting that the test happened to fall on today, which is Halloween. Just sitting in the examination room waiting already generates a lot of tension and anxiety within the room! And also the thought of failing the test in an epic manner is frightening too.

And Halloween always conjures to the mind images of horrible scary things like walking zombies, bloodshed, chainsaw-wielding maniacs etc. But what exactly is Halloween in the first place? And what's with the name? Well "Halloween" is possibly a contraction of "All-Hallows-Even", basically meaning the evening before All Hallows Day (or some call it All Saints' Day), which is the day that commemorates those who have achieved "beatific vision" (eternal & direct visual perception of God). That's another event altogether, so I won't dwell too much on it...

So why do people dress up as scary things on this night? And why give away candy? The origin of this holiday is quite unclear, having several links to different events on different calendars. Usually its roots are attributed to the Celtic festival of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest and having some elements of a Festival of the Dead. The only thing certain about Halloween was that this was supposedly the time our physical world and the supernatural world sort of blend, allowing spirits and other weird things to roam our world.

Now some say that the tradition of giving away free candy is based on the superstition that the candy will help pacify the rowdy spirits, thus ensuring a bountiful future harvest. Others say it's based on the Medieval practice of "souling", i.e. begging for treats like Soul Cake on All Hallows Day by singing and saying prayers honoring the dead. As for the costumes, you can kinda guess they were originally a way to imitate the supernatural beings roaming the Earth, but with the fanciful costumes in modern times you might not be able to tell.

Another popular activity associated with Halloween is bobbing for apples... you know, using only your mouth to fish out apples floating in water. That isn't scary at all, so what's it got to do with Halloween??? Some scholars believe that some Roman customs kinda mixed around and influenced the festival of Samhain, and one of the Roman goddesses was Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees and gardens. Guess what her symbol was? An apple! So perhaps that's why apple-bobbing and candied apples somehow got into the mix.

Then what about the famous jack-o'-lantern? Well it started from the British Isles, where the tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables like turnips started. It's only in North America where they used pumpkins, which were easier to carve than turnips. Somehow the pumpkins were more popular and later got associated with Halloween much much later.

As for its name, the jack-o'-lantern was named after a character called Stingy Jack. Several versions of his tale exist, but what we know is that Jack somehow managed to trap the Devil, only agreeing to release him on the condition that he does not take Jack's soul. However when he died he was too sinful to enter Heaven, making him stuck on Earth. He then asked how he was to see at night since he had no light with him, so the Devil mockingly gave him an undying ember from the flames of Hell. Jack then carved out a lantern from a turnip (his favorite food) and put the ember inside it. Thus he was fated to roam the Earth with his turnip lantern until he could find a resting place...

(Interestingly the name "jack-o'-lantern" could also mean literally a man with a lantern, or a description of the will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon, i.e. "ghostly lights")

So now you can celebrate Halloween with a bit more background knowledge than before, instead of taking it at face value! If you're going trick-or-treating tonight, have fun! Although I suspect you'd already have celebrated yesterday or the day before...